an appreciation of Keith Hennessey's Turbulence, A Dance Against the Economy

By John Wilkins

It all could fall
I saw Keith Hennessey’s Turbulence, A Dance Against the Economy over three months ago and still can’t stop thinking about it. It’s not just the performance, which is stunning enough in and of itself, but the way in which it demands a rethinking of aesthetic priorities, aims and what’s possible in the theater and for that matter art in general. For me, there really has been a before and after Turbulence. I can’t quite get around what it proposes and accomplishes. It certainly isn’t about aesthetic quality or breaking barriers or subverting or embracing taboos, all superficial aspects of the performance and post-modern aesthetics, but instead Turbulence takes on a richness of feeling, a belief that art can disrupt what is ordered and dead and create, for fleeting moments, a world of truth and reality that you just know, that if you wanted to, you could grasp. In this way, Turbulence is defiantly and unabashedly utopian in its aspirations: it implores us to dream and to join the dreams of others, both politically and emotionally. It proposes that there is a more vibrant and loving world than the one we live in, that our desires are worthy, that the imagination is not a dream, but a reality, with repercussions as powerful as the economy.

As an audience member that challenges you and it’s important to say that although Hennessy and his fellow artists are engaged with social issues, there are no solutions here. If you want a path to change or a comforting call to revolution, then Turbulence will disappoint, as it did Gia Kourlas of The New York Times and Allan Ulrich of The San Francisco Chronicle. It’s amazing how they both correctly describe what happened on stage and yet somehow miss the entire experience. Their criticisms are eerily similar and take Hennessey to task for not ordering his aesthetic and political priorities, a demand that the piece cannot, and I would argue, should not provide them. It’s as if Kourlas and Ulrich devalue Hennessy’s work for not providing them with an easy path to analysis, or any kind of opportunity for analysis at all.

Things get intense
Of course, explaining the inner life of imaginary events is what critics are expert at and so one can imagine their dismay at Hennessey for changing the rules. For the most part, artists stake a claim in the imagination, in the dubious notion that art is a fiction, and then wait for critics, producers and audiences to assign an interpretive value to their work, a value that then easily translates to the price of a ticket and our time. Turbulence isn’t so much an attack on that idea, as it just seems to bypass the whole question—although I’m sure in private that Hennessey and his dancers are quite capable of leveling a spot-on critique against the whole system. What Turbulence stands for and what makes it baffling to cultural arbiters like the Times and the Chronicle is the reality of performance, the fact that it is undeniably happening. It is in this quite old and traditional idea that Hennessey’s piece gains an astounding amount of power and insight, producing something unexpected and almost impossible to define. Turbulence might bill itself as a “dance against the economy,” but its lasting power is more in its after effects than in any direct engagement or head-on encounter.

So here’s an image for you: about halfway through the performance I looked up to the steel-grated catwalk of the YBCA Forum and saw a nude couple, the woman’s body pressed up against metal slats so that she seemed to take on the quality of a waffle and the man’s body, resting on his side, contemplating her. Shimmering behind them was an expanse of cheap, but beautiful under stage lights, golden fabric, which had been used throughout the performance and, most significantly, in what I can only describe as a nocturnal Irish jig performed by Hennessey and about five of his dancers. The jig was beautiful enough for one evening, the metal pressed nude couple, well, that’s one of those images you might never forget. That it seemed dangerous, was obviously uncomfortable for the performers, didn’t lessen its beauty but intensified it. It goes without saying that the image by itself could never achieve such a piercing effect: alone, it would just be another one of the strange circus acts that seem to litter the San Francisco performance scene, the type of supposedly transgressive stunt you might catch in a late night evening at the Supper Club. But under Hennessey’s rigorous guidance that image and many others like it burst into our consciousness with all the force of reality shaking us from a dream. You couldn’t help but notice that it was real, that the effect had an effect. And it is this belief in the reality of effects, much like the reality of the effects of the economy, which gives Turbulence an aesthetic and philosophical force that goes beyond most contemporary performance and theater.

Let's start a party
That this feeling of reality comes from a piece that is so improvised at times it’s hard to tell who the performers are and where they’re coming from and if they even stay for the whole of the evening, and in a piece where you don’t even know what constitutes the whole of the evening is quite an achievement. It’s a crazy gambit and none of it should work and yet everything about the performance felt alive, real, a rebuke to sanitized art and sanitized living. In one of the opening set pieces one of the female dancers stalked the stage with a microphone complaining about a woman’s reaction to the previous night’s performance. The criticism amounted to something like, “Where are the women”? The dancer explained that she had given everything she had to the show, that her mind and body had never been so fully present and that she had felt ideologically erased by this haphazard feminist critique. Even though she was speaking to the audience, after a while she just seemed to be speaking to herself or anyone within earshot. Her concerns had no target, or the target had long left the theater, or she just wanted to talk the problem out to herself but in front of us. The issues raised were present, but absent of the need to agree or believe or to do anything with what she said. The performance was merely that she felt and felt strongly and that we could watch her feel strongly.

My Life to Live

In Susan Sontag’s essay on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, she makes a distinction between proof and analysis. Sontag claims that Godard doesn’t analyze what happens to the housewife turned prostitute, Nana; he merely gives you the proof that something has happened. This makes the film radically “untopical,” even when it is ostensibly about something, in this case prostitution. Godard destroys causality and instead makes you experience what you cannot deny and by committing it to film provides us with the after-the-fact evidence of an undeniable reality. Hennessy works some of the same magic in Turbulence without the benefit of film’s documentation. One could say that Turbulence is about the economy or love or late capitalism or a new type of world or the last gasp of utopianism. It is clearly about all those things, or at least those issues are part of what Hennessey and his dancers are concerned about. But to make that the topic of the dance would be a joke: we’re all concerned about those things and when they become the subject of art they don’t clarify but fall into cliché. What Hennessey avoids in Turbulence is the deadly downfall of most liberal-minded political theater—the belief that a problem can be rationally presented, explained and solved in a performance. Turbulence doesn’t side with the irrational, but it sure knows the limits of rationality.

There are no overarching explanations here, just raw data and vivid snapshots of our political and cultural life. When you think about the economy and the destructive force that it is playing in many people’s lives (and it’s important that there are many performers on stage), you can see the brilliance of Hennessey’s approach. Everything about the performance is fleeting and if you aren’t alert you don’t catch it, but that’s how economic forces operate—you never see them until they become something else. Despite the commonness of the phrase, you can never “take a picture of the economy.” It’s not there, but if you look you can see its secondary effects and that’s what Turbulence is about: the drama after the catastrophe. Everything about the performance seems to be over before it begins. You understand that what you’re about to see is singular, that the previous performances of Turbulence have vanished and that all we have is this one. It’s the power of film turned upside down. It’s real because there’s no documentation, nothing is left behind and it’s all there in front of you. Hennessey and his dancers aren’t putting on a show about the economy; instead, they attempt to make themselves artifacts, partial symbols of an impossible to represent force. It’s not surprising that most of them look battered before they begin.

It's tough at times

Now that sounds serious and I guess it is, but that’s not how the performance feels or it’s more complicated than that, because what you come away with is how deeply everyone on stage wants to feel joy, that they want to have fun. So the dancers sing to each other and set up elaborate stunts and make out, and in one of the more disturbing images a nude man thumps his body over and over against the floor as he tries to achieve a very elusive sexual satisfaction with himself. Some of it is goofy, because when people try to have fun they do goofy things, but then the goofy verges on the dangerous. One dancer seemed to be enjoying munching on glass. And you think to yourself, that’s wrong, don’t chew on glass, you’ll hurt yourself, and yet she blissfully goes on, the perfect image of a teenager enjoying her last, long summer day. It’s incredible how much Hennessey manages to get in: the piece is full of an abundance of feeling and experience and it’s a pleasure to try to take it all in. In fact, it’s a pleasure just to have that opportunity.

In the end, what’s funny about Turbulence is that for all its radical strangeness it looks so familiar. You walk into the theater and you look at the stage and a thousand dance performances come flooding into your memory. There’s the sylvan scene and there are the beautiful dancers, but the scene is polluted and the dancers are damaged. There’s no illusion of perfection, just the reality that in a fraught economic and political system, people will still fight for happiness, but that the happiness they fight for will inevitably be desperate and ugly. Yet, and this is the kind of wonderful thing about Turbulence, you feel sad when it’s over, and it’s hard to tell when it’s over, and so you might linger at the door as my friend Robert and I did and try to catch one more glimpse of something happening. It’s a rare experience in the Bay Area scene, where much is declared and little happens.

Everybody dance now!
©CCA Arts Review and John Wilkins

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